An interesting reaction to one of my posts about rape and police inaction solicited a comment on stumbleupon complaining “once again nowhere to donate.” The comment made me think of my students who often look extremely depressed midway through my social justice courses. When I ask them why they are pouting, they always say “well, this class is great but the world sucks and what are we supposed to do about it?!?” It’s about that time I give them my “soft drink” talk. I ask them to look at what they are drinking, knowing that most are drinking a particular product because it pays pov u a lot of money to feature its products on campus (shhhhh!!!!). Then I tell them about all of the violence against women, children, poor people, and people of color that the particular company is implicated in around the world (shhhhh!!!!). As they stare at their drinks horrified and dumbfounded as to how this information could possibly help their depression, I tell them where all the alternative drink machines are on campus and tell them just by buying a different product they make a statement to the company about their practices. I draw a connection between those choices and anti-apartheid movements on college campuses started by students that ultimately caused the universities with the most to lose to divest from Apartheid driven South Africa. Then I remind them that school is about learning to ask questions you might not otherwise ask or even know to ask. It is about learning to be critical thinkers and taking responsibility for what thinking critical reveals about our world. Everyone has choices and everyone can make a difference regardless of their politics. It is also at this point in the class, that I challenge them to do what other students have already been modeling, get involved in our communities and bring in opportunities to be involved locally and globally to class. In other words, I reframe that old comic book saying about great power and responsibility to remind them that they can and do have power to change the world. Think of it as the With Great Knowledge, Comes Great Responsibility, model.
Why am I telling you all of this?
It seems to me that the internet is both a reflection of the hopelessness under the weight of oppression that so many struggle with and an amplification of it. On the one hand, everyone has felt confused about where to start or how to start or even if doing anything would help when dealing with inequality. On the other hand, the internet spoon feeds information to users. You don’t have to look up material anymore because we link to everything. You don’t have to sit with any information you read because we have distilled everything into 144 words. And now you don’t even have to think about how to get involved because we link that too. And so people, in general, have become extremely lazy about owning the power they have to become informed, get involved, and work toward change.
Remember when I put up a post on intersectional reading material with the full citations a year or more ago? I did not link the articles because most of them were not available online and I knew that linking to incomplete sources would have led people to read the few pages available and move on. People spent months demanding I link to the material, literally calling me lazy and stupid for not doing “basic things” like linking to articles; the irony of their own laziness in refusing to look up the material with a simple google search or trip to the library and their own ignorance in demanding links to full material that was not available on the internet was lost on them. Then someone actually wrote a post claiming I had intentionally withheld the links to force people to think resulting in a bunch of people coming to the blog to go off about how “condescending it was” for me to withhold information and how it “completely undermine[d] [my] efforts” because “no one was going to look up the information”, so I “might as well have not written [the] post”. Again, they did not bother to read my post or any of the comments reiterating it’s point about some sources not being digitized, they just demanded to be fed information as if was their right to sit back and depend on someone else.
Like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, everyone commenting was capable of doing their own work or at the very least finding a way to get it. Unlike the plant in Little Shop, they were unwilling to work, to advocate for themselves, or even to consider how offensive it might be to demand that a woman of color provide every ounce of information on diversity readings to a mostly white, middle class, audience with more access to libraries, bookstores, good schools, and income needed to track down and/or buy the materials. In the midst of so many women of color and allies saying thank you for the resources, these readers collective opened their wide mouths and demanded “feed me” expecting blood if nothing else.
While many of my posts do include links to organizations where you can volunteer, donate, or learn more information, my post on Antione Dodson did not. That post was about people’s reactions and inaction to issues of rape and sexual violence in poor communities, especially of color. It was not an activism post.
According to the 2007 National Crime Victim Survey, 500 people (.05% of them men or boys) were raped every day in the United States. That is roughly 20 people an hour. According to the US Department of Justice Bureau 2009 Justice Stats on Rape and Stalking, women between the ages of 19-24 make up the largest group of survivors. While my readers cross multiple identities, the largest group of people linking to my post based on an informal survey of links is female between 16 and 25; ie, they are roughly the same age group as the largest targeted population in the U.S. for rape. 1 in 3 women is a victim of domestic or sexual violence in their life time, since this post garnered 10,000s of hits per day for several weeks, that means that on average both the people linking or reading the post have some known relationship to rape survivors as friends, colleagues, or survivors themselves. Given this information, it seems to me that it isn’t too much to ask that people reading would be aware of rape, domestic and sexual violence, and either know the names of some of the organizations working on these issues in their area or how to look this information up with a simple google search. “Rape survivors + [city I live in]” yielded 5 helpful agencies, with addresses and phone numbers, and a law firm specializing in victim’s rights in the first 6 links on Google. “Women’s Crisis + [state I live in]” yielded a list of shelters, hospitals, and advocates in the top links. And so on. When you do the same thing using Dodson’s hometown, you find survivor support groups, AIDs hotlines, hospital advocates, and lawyers. It really is that simple.
The specific criticism of this post was that there was no “Donation” button or link to “do something about the issue.” Again, the ease with which we pass information on the internet seems to have stunted both people’s willingness to take charge of their own power to know and act, but also to engage in critical thinking about knowing and acting. Many people, especially in the radical woc, feminist, and dis/ability blogosphere have been deconstructing the idea of “donation culture” as social justice. In other words, we have been working within and expanding on existing critiques of who writes checks, who can write checks, whether check writing shifts thinking and commitment after the ink dries, and whether writing checks is a solution or a band aid. While I think most, if not all, of us understand that philanthropy is a critical part of keeping movements funded and operational, the idea is to do more than write a check through options ranging from educating yourself on the issues to organizing a group of people to get personally involved for the long term in the work of changing the system or aiding people. It is also about listening to communities and what they want, if they ask for money then money is the primary way to honor community need, if they ask for publicity and consciousness raising, then writing blog posts, writing editorials to your local paper, sending in emails to the national news about the issue, and talking about it with everyone you meet is the primary way to honor the community need, and so on. And no, honoring what the community says it needs does not preclude you from doing other things as well, it just makes their voices foremost and centered in your activism.
Getting back to the Dodson post, I specifically linked to a woc blogger who had listed all of the major players in the incident who had not acted on information about a serial rapist. She had phone numbers, websites, and action ideas in her post. Since my post was about perception, reception, and the failure of people who actually self-define as activist communities to act, linking to this information seemed more in keeping with the point of the post. So once again, no one bothered to follow through with the links I did provide because it wasn’t spelled out for them that they should click on the links. Have you noticed how we have gone from a digital culture that links to items to one that spells out explicitly why you should follow links with annotated bibliography type blurbs before or after the link? FEED ME SEYMORE.
(This is not a critique of the individual who said this but all of the people who thought it right a long with her and all of the ways that the internet encourages such thoughts.)
The way power works, is to convince you that power over people and things is normal and natural AND that you can do nothing about it. The people in power want you to believe that you are “just one person” and to constantly be asking “what could I possibly do to change things” so that you will give up. The practices of internet writing and activism are embedded in this system and potentially making it worse by making people passive consumers of information. According to recent research on brain development, the 144 word tweet culture is actually remapping pathways in the brain away from empathy and reflixivity. I want to encourage you to begin the decolonization of your mind by refusing to accept these easy constructions and expanding your information sources to a level that keeps your ability to connect and empathize with others intact. One person can and does change the world. One person can and has challenged the system:
You can start by being an active reader. When you see stats or other material cited or referred to, look it up. Ask who the source is, what is their theoretical and methodological training or usage, has the author of the post that linked to them accurately portrayed their content, etc. When you cannot find it online, go to the library or search around the topic, for instance in the Dodson case, look at information on the area, HUD and police stats vs. community reports, etc. Once you’ve done that, consider how you can become involved in changing social inequality in your own communities as well as support those in other communities referenced in the article that got you fired up in the first place. Again, in the Dodson case that means looking up rape survivor advocacy programs and getting involved or making a donation (clothes, money, gas vouchers for volunteers to get to the hospital, etc.) in your own area and/or giving money to rape and domestic and sexual violence agencies in Dodson’s area, sending a letter to the police or HUD about your concerns over their seeming inaction about a serial rapist, or starting an online petition that would flood them with faxes or signatures saying we are all watching. And if you really can’t think of anything else to do but be depressed and hit the resend button (which is a start in and of itself) then talk to your peers, families, and educators about what they think you could do. Worst case, come back to the blog owner and ask, but if you ask me, I am going to suggest you do your own research first.
To end on cliche that just happens to be soooo true: Knowledge is power. What you do with that power is up to you.
(By the way, I have chosen these related articles for the ways that the critique, expand, or agree with the opinions I have expressed in this post rather than their take on the same specific topic.)